NEW YORK - If the game had been played today, you might have seen something like this on ESPN's website: "Chapman (CLE) hit by pitch. Lunte pinch-running for Chapman." That entry, though, doesn't begin to tell the story of what happened in the top of the fifth inning that mid-August day in 1920 in the Polo Grounds.
It doesn't talk about the fading light, the skies already hazy in the fifth inning, or how the baseball had faded to a dull brown by that point in the game. It doesn't tell how Carl Mays, the Yankees pitcher, threw with such a low submarine-style delivery that it looked like the ball was coming up from the mound, making it blend in nicely with the dirt. It doesn't say how Ray Chapman, Cleveland's speedy shortstop, never flinched, most likely never seeing the ball that hit him in the temple. And it doesn't tell how the sound of the ball hitting Chapman's forehead was so loud, that the ricochet was so fast, that Mays fielded the ball and threw it to first, thinking it had hit Chapman's bat.
Chapman collapsed to the ground. He tried to get up to walk to the clubhouse, but he collapsed again. He never regained consciousness, dying the next day, August 17. He is one of only two players to die as a result of injuries suffered during a Major League game, the only one to die as a result of being hit by a pitch.
Chapman's death had instant ramifications. Before, a baseball would be kept in play until it was hit into the stands, and only then would a new one be thrown in. Then, the fielders would toss the ball around the infield, just like they do to this day after every out, only in 1920, the fielders were spitting tobacco juice and rubbing dirt on the ball as it came by. Batters rarely, if ever, got to hit a perfectly white baseball. That changed with Chapman's death. Now, umpires had to put a new ball in play whenever the previous one became unplayable, and pitches such as the spitball became outlawed. There was also a renewed call for batters to be allowed to wear batting helmets, but that change didn't come into effect for more than 30 years.
Mays received instant backlash, with some people going so far as calling for him to be charged with murder. He pitched for nine more years, but never got over the stigma of being the pitcher that killed a batter. Many people think that one single pitch is the only thing that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
For Cleveland, which had just taken the lead in the pennant race a few days before Chapman's death, the loss was devastating, both from a personal standpoint of having a teammate die in front of their eyes, but also from a competitive standpoint, as they had lost their starting shortstop and leadoff hitter. But they recovered, partly with the help of the suspension of the eight Black Sox near the end of the season that crippled Chicago, and partly with the help of Joe Sewell, the future hall-of-fame shortstop who got his start in the Majors when he was called on to replace Chapman. The Indians held on to the pennant that year, winning the World Series over Brooklyn and dedicating the championship to Chapman.